Bluegrass Beacon: Charter schools and the Walking (Brain) Dead


Like the Walking Dead episode where a peculiar virus strain allows zombies to come back to life – albeit with minimal brain activity – school-choice opponents keep resurrecting attempts to mislead Kentuckians by wrongly defining charter schools.

They hope to prevent such schools in Kentucky, despite the fact that 43 other states have passed legislation resulting in more than 6,000 charters serving 2.3 million students.

The latest such zombie-like brain freeze occurred at a recent Louisville Forum luncheon, where Raoul Cunningham, local NAACP president, claimed that charters are “private” schools that “cherry-pick” their students.

I, as a humble member of that panel, corrected Cunningham by noting that no charter-school law in America allows “private charter schools.”

I also explained that state laws governing charters not only prohibit them from excluding students, but also require random lotteries in the event that more students than available seats want to enroll.

Still, Cunningham simply doubled down on his erroneous and misleading definition.

It’s considerably easier, of course, to convince Kentuckians who have yet to climb the school choice learning curve that charter schools are unworthy and unnecessary in the commonwealth if you can convince them that they somehow serve only the elite and are consumed with creating an apocalyptic implosion in public education by thieving resources and good students from traditional classrooms.

Then there’s the truth from those, who – continuing the Walking Dead analogy – still enjoy full brain activity.

They are the characters in this narrative about properly defining charters who, despite their politics, ideology and views about the philosophy or even the performance of these schools, are intellectually honest enough to offer truthful definitions.

  • The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools defines charters as “unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement. Because they are public schools, they are: open to all children; do not charge tuition; and do not have special entrance requirements.”


  • Mendell Grinter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options wrote in the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Like other public schools, charters are funded by local, state and federal tax dollars based on enrollment and are open to anyone.”


  • Keith McHugh, who writes on, a Common Core-friendly website sponsored by progressivists like Bill and Melinda Gates, acknowledges: “Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free, and they can’t discriminate against students because of their race, gender, or disability.”

Not only does McHugh accurately describe charter schools, he notes there’s a higher level of accountability than what we see in traditional public schools: “If a school is mismanaged or test scores are poor, a charter school can be shut down.”

  • Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change also accurately notes on the highly respected Education Week website: “state legislators in more than 40 states have decided chartering is part of public education.

By claiming that charter-school proponents have cloaked private, elite, cherry-picking schools in a shroud labeled “public education,” does Cunningham also maintain all of those state legislatures that passed charter-school bills and the governors who signed them into law in 43 different states were duped into thinking they were expanding public-education choices for mostly poor, minority families when, in reality, they were just benefiting the wealthy at the expense of their public system?

The last time I checked – which was earlier today – not only were public schools still going strong in those states, but many of them are laying these zombie-like claims to rest by actually improving their own performance now that they aren’t the only game in town.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Daily Signal video: New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

Interesting testimonies as New Orleans schools celebrate 10 years of post-Katrina recovery. Charter schools played a big role, as you will hear from these students and young adults who were caught in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.

The Economist: Quality of research isn’t so great

The Economist has published an interesting article, “Try Again,” about the generally unreliable quality of many research papers in the psychology area.

The problem is that many such papers get only a “peer review.” No one actually tries to replicate the research to see if the results can be reproduced, which is the way real science is conducted.

Thus, in a study of the studies, the Economist article says many psychology findings could not be solidly duplicated.

Writes the Economist:

“In truth, these results will surprise few of those involved in research, for whom bias at the heart of academic publishing is an open secret. High-profile journals are more likely to accept articles that show new, positive results than ones which demonstrate no correlation or effect. Since the careers of researchers depend on getting their work published, the temptation to, for example, massage things by removing inconvenient outliers which those concerned persuade themselves are freak results, can be overwhelming.”

I bring this up here because education research is predominantly pursued in the same manner as psychological research. In fact most studies in education get published with only a peer review, at best. Replication efforts are rare. Indeed, because many education studies fail to identify the schools and districts where they are conducted, true replication is often impossible.

This flawed research process leads to a lot of ineffectiveness as we struggle to improve our education system. We are hearing calls today to use radical education ideas that Kentucky already tried in the early days of KERA, ideas that never worked.

For example, “Fuzzy Math” ideas are back, again. The Internet is alive with examples of crazy math workbook and assessment questions. Parents are bewildered about how – or if – this stuff really works and why it is even worth the confusion. Teachers don’t really seem to know, either, because they can’t explain it to parents.

We hear – again – that “research shows” we need advanced assessment elements like performance events to adequately test science. Researchers have either forgotten or are choosing to ignore brutal lessons learned in Kentucky in the early 1990s that such expensive items are not sustainable in assessments. The “Performance Events” in the old KIRIS assessments expensively crashed in just four years. Still, “research” keeps appearing touting the value of such failed ideas, and more kids are put at risk as a result.

This isn’t the way good science gets done, but it is the way too much “science” is being done. That’s bad for the field of psychology, and it’s bad for education, too. Buyer, and parent, beware.

Finalists for KY education commissioner announced

The Kentucky Department of Education has announced the names of the finalists in the running to be Kentucky’s next commissioner of education. The full release follows. I would appreciate any feedback on any of the candidates.


No. 15-093 August 27, 2015
MEDIA CONTACT: Nancy Rodriguez
Office: (502) 564-2000, ext. 4610 | Cell: (502) 330-5063 | E-mail:


(FRANKFORT, Ky.) – Today, the Kentucky Board of Education announced the names of the five candidates it is currently considering for the position of commissioner of education.
The five are:

• Kathleen M. Airhart, Ed.D. – Airhart currently serves as the deputy commissioner, chief operating officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, a position she has held since January. She has primary responsibility for the divisions of state finance, federal programs, audit, information technology, and human resources. Prior to that she was deputy commissioner, chief academic officer with the Tennessee Department of Education and provided direct oversight to the divisions of curriculum and instruction, career and technical education, special populations, audit and consolidated planning and monitoring. Airhart’s previous experience includes: teacher; compliance consultant; special education supervisor; and superintendent for the Putnam County school system in Cookeville, Tennessee. She earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and educational specialist degree from Tennessee Technological University and a Doctorate of Education from Tennessee State University.

• Buddy Berry, Ed.D. – Berry is in his sixth year as superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, Kentucky. Berry’s previous experience, all in Kentucky, includes: mathematics teacher and head football coach at Owen County High School and Jeffersontown High School; guidance counselor at Shelby County High School; mathematics teacher at Eminence Ind. High School; and Highly Skilled Educator with the Kentucky Department of Education. Berry earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky; a master’s from Bellarmine University; a superintendency certificate from Eastern Kentucky University; and a Doctorate of Education from Northern Kentucky University.

• Christopher A. Koch, Ed.D. – Koch (pronounced cook) currently is the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), a position he has held since May. Prior to that he was Illinois State Superintendent of Education from December 2006-May 2015. Koch’s previous experience includes assistant superintendent, chief education officer, and director of special education with the Illinois state education agency; education program specialist with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education; and special education/vocational teacher in four states and in various settings including an Outward Bound program, college preparatory school, youth detention center and psychiatric hospital. Koch earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree and Doctorate of Education from The George Washington University.

• Lloyd D. Martin, Ph.D. – Martin is currently the chief executive officer for Universal School Solutions, LLC, an education consultancy firm that he founded in 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida. Martin’s prior experience includes: superintendent of Mansfield City Schools in Mansfield, Ohio; executive director of K-9 education – cluster 1, and regional director with the Duval County Public Schools, in Jacksonville, Florida; executive principal with the Dayton Public Schools in Dayton, Ohio; and principal, assistant principal, leadership trainee, and social studies teacher with the Columbus Public Schools in Columbus, Ohio. Martin earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University; a master’s degree from the University of Dayton, where he also earned a Doctorate of Philosophy.

• Stephen L. Pruitt, Ph.D. – Pruitt is currently senior vice president at Achieve, Inc., an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization, where he has served since 2010. Pruitt’s prior experience includes chief of staff, associate state superintendent, director of academic standards, and science and mathematics program manager with the Georgia Department of Education; and high school chemistry teacher in Fayetteville and Tyrone, Georgia. Pruitt earned a bachelor’s degree from North Georgia College and State University; a master’s from the University of West Georgia and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Auburn University.

“The pool of candidates for this position was excellent because of the extensive outreach and Kentucky’s strong history as a progressive leader in public education,” said Kentucky Board of Education Chair Roger Marcum. “Narrowing the pool has been difficult, because of the wide-ranging and vast experience the many candidates would bring to the job. We continue to focus on the characteristics for the commissioner’s position that the board agreed upon and on which Kentucky educators, partner groups and the public provided input early in the search. The board looks forward to continuing exploration of each candidate’s thoughts, ideas and views this weekend.”

The board will meet tomorrow and Saturday in Lexington to conduct second interviews with each of the five candidates.
During the search, the board and search firm, Greenwood/Asher and Associates, Inc. made more than 330 contacts, reviewed detailed information on more than 44 individuals and interviewed 13 candidates.

The new commissioner will replace current Commissioner Terry Holliday, who is retiring next week.

The board has selected Associate Commissioner and General Counsel Kevin C. Brown to serve as interim commissioner starting Sept. 1 until a new commissioner can begin.


Innes to talk with Mandy Connell on WHAS 840 tonight

Bluegrass Institute staff education analyst Richard Innes will be live talking about the new ACT scores with Mandy Connell tonight on her 6 pm (Eastern Time) show on WHAS NewsRadio 840 AM. If you live outside the WHAS broadcast area, you can listen in on the web here.

New ACT shows education achievement gaps rising, again.

The new Profile Report about Kentucky’s 2015 high School Graduates from the ACT, Inc. along with earlier reports from 2014 and 2013 provide data to create a series of graphs that explore the achievement gaps between Kentucky’s whites and blacks. These cover a period where the results have been consistently reported as an average of scores for students who took the ACT in the standard time allowed plus scores for students who got extra time but still could have scores reported to colleges.

Here is how this looks (Note: the first five graphs are for all students, public, private and home school combined. The last graph looks at public school only data).

In ACT English, the white minus black score gap was slightly reduced between 2013 and 2014, but the new results show all that improvement and more was lost and the gap is now the largest ever for the past three years. Also, white scores have increased more than those for blacks. By the way, that 2015 score for blacks of 15.5 is associated with a college readiness rate for English of only 32 percent.

Gap - Englsh

Click the “Read more” link to see the rest of the graphs.

[Read more...]

How Kentucky’s dominant racial group compares against their counterparts on the 2015 ACT

Now that I have explained why you have to break the ACT data out by race before you start ranking against other states, let’s look at how Kentucky’s white high school graduates of 2015 (includes all school types: public, private and home school combined) stack up against whites in other states that tested all their 2015 grads with the ACT. This graph shows the story.

KY Whites Vs Other 100 Percent States' ACT Composite in 2015

Tied for bottom of the heap! That isn’t what we want!

Note that a number of Southern states including Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi (Yikes!) and North Carolina all bested us.

So, while Kentucky made a little progress, other states still scored better for the racial group that makes up the vast majority of all Kentucky 2015 high school graduates (73 percent according to the ACT).

The scores and remarks above are based on data from Table 5 in each state’s ACT Profile Summary Report for the Graduating Class of 2015. Get those here.

Charter-school-rich Louisiana actually beats Kentucky on 2015 ACT!

But, you have to look at the data carefully to see that

The new ACT scores are out, and the picture for Kentucky isn’t so great. Overall, the state’s ACT Composite Score did go up 0.1 point for all students across the state’s public, private and home school sectors, but other states are doing better.

One incredible example of a state doing better is Charter-School-Rich Louisiana.

You might want to say, “Hey, how can you say that! Isn’t Kentucky’s 2015 ACT Composite Score average of 20.0 notably better than Louisiana’s 19.4? It is true that when we only consider overall scores, it looks like Kentucky did better than Louisiana, but the overall average scores are hiding something important. Let me explain.

You see, when it comes to comparing state education systems, you cannot accurately find the winners if you only look at overall average scores. If you only look at the overall average scores, you will probably fall into a statistics trap known as Simpson’s Paradox. Let’s expand the Kentucky and Louisiana ACT results for 2015 to see how real data explains Simpson’s.

Check out this table, which summarizes data published in Table 1.5 in the 2015 ACT Profile Reports for Kentucky and the separate report for Louisiana.

KY vs LA on ACT in 2015

The top row in the table body shows the overall average scores for “All Students,” which includes all 2015 graduates of each state’s public, private and home school programs combined. Kentucky indeed notably outscores Louisiana for the All Student area.

But, take a look at what happens when we break the data out by race. As shown by the table cells highlighted in yellow, Louisiana outscores Kentucky for every separate racial group the ACT reports except for the very small numbers of Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders found in each state.

Now who looks like the education winner? Obviously, it is Louisiana.

The only reason Kentucky looks like a winner when we only look at the overall average score for “All Students” is because Kentucky has a lot more white students than Louisiana. Thanks to the grim racial achievement gaps, only examining overall scores makes Kentucky look better only because the Bluegrass State has a lot more white students even though Kentucky’s whites score notably lower than those in Louisiana.

In fact, if the student racial mix in Louisiana had the same proportions found in Kentucky, I calculate that Louisiana’s average ACT Composite Score would be 20.4, notably higher than Kentucky’s.

The clearly better performance in Louisiana for virtually all racial groups has important messages for Kentucky regarding charter schools. Keep in mind that Louisiana had to essentially rebuild much of the Southern half of the state’s school system after Hurricane Katrina hit a decade ago. Louisiana chose to do that with a large number of charter schools, and the impact of that decision for school choice is clearly bearing fruit.

So, why does Kentucky continue to fight the growing evidence? School choice does do a better job for students, something we badly need here. The argument for choice just keeps growing, and even the ACT results add support, provided you remember the cardinal rule – never rank state education systems based only on overall average scores. You have to dig deeper to overcome the seriously different racial mixes that are now found in different states across the nation. Otherwise, you run the real risk of becoming the next person to fall prey to Simpson’s Paradox.

ACT’s verdict on the real college readiness rate for Kentucky’s students

We’ve heard a lot of “stuff” about Kentucky’s supposedly wonderful college readiness rates over the past few years since Common Core came along.

For example, last year the Kentucky statewide school report card (access from here) claimed the overall College and/or Career readiness rate was 62.5 percent, a figure Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday has been touting at every possible occasion. More relevant to our discussion today, that same report shows for the sub-area of college readiness only, 24,322 students out of 43,722 students, or 55.6 percent of the Kentucky public high school class of 2014, were college ready.

However, one of the most useful measures of college readiness just released its annual report for Kentucky’s high school graduates of 2015, and the “real stuff” shows something very different.

The ACT, Inc.’s “ACT Profile Report, State, Graduating Class 2015, Kentucky” report contains information for all Kentucky graduates from public, private and homeschool sources. However, public school students are the dominant group in this mix, so the data released by the ACT pretty closely reflects what is happening in the public schools in Kentucky (I’ll have more detailed information about Kentucky’s public schools by themselves when I get a chance to review a separate data release due later today from the Kentucky Department of Education).

For sure, what the ACT data tells us isn’t so rosy.

This graph, taken from ACT’s new report for Kentucky, tells the rather grim story.

ACT All Subject Benchmark Performance for Kentucky 2015

Overall, ACT test results show only 21 percent of all Kentucky’s graduates, public, private and home school combined, were fully prepared for a liberal arts college education with adequate skills in English, math, reading and science.

That’s all!

Just 21 percent!

Based on past history, this college-ready number would be even lower if only the public school graduates were considered.

The situation looks far grimmer when we review how Kentucky’s racial minorities fared.

• Only one in 20 black students – just five percent – were fully ready for college. That gruesome figure is unchanged from last year.
• A not much higher percentage of Hispanics, just 14 percent, were prepared, as well.

Overall, these data points just don’t mesh with claims from the Kentucky Department of Education that more than half our kids are being prepared for college. What kind of college are they being prepared for? Certainly not the kind the ACT, Inc. has in mind.

This unhappy news will be no surprise to many businessmen in this state. A recent news report at says business leaders from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce are really upset about the poor quality of recent graduates from Kentucky’s Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) – graduates who just were not ready for careers. Well, the ACT data points to the fact that this lack of readiness probably starts well before our high school graduates enter a KCTCS campus, or even graduate from high school.

One more point to consider: The ACT National Profile Report shows that across the nation 28 percent of all high school graduates in 2015 were fully college ready across the four subjects ACT tests. That is obviously higher than the 21 percent rate Kentucky posted. The national readiness rates for blacks and Hispanics were both a point higher than in Kentucky, as well, though it is clear the Bluegrass State is far from the only place in this country that is under-serving our minority students.

So – Frankfort, we have a problem. Even when we include our home school and private school students in the data, Kentucky’s K to 12 education system isn’t delivering nearly well enough for our state – not for our students, and not for our economy’s needs, either. Let’s stop pushing fantasy numbers and let’s start working to fix our obvious problems.

Stay tuned, because there is a lot more to talk about in the new ACT reports, and the state’s report on the public school only results is still pending, as well.

New Poll: Parents across country don’t like Common Core, BUT they do like school choice

The 47 Annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is out, and it shows very low parent support for Common Core State Standards exists across the country.

The report specifically states:

“A majority of public school parents oppose having teachers in their community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach.”

In terms of numbers, only 25 percent of public school parents say they favor having the teachers in their local school use Common Core. Across all respondents in the nation, the opinion was very similar, with only 24 percent now reporting support for Common Core in the schools.

And, unlike in past years, this isn’t an uniformed sample of parents. The PDK/Gallup also asked how much the respondents know about Common Core. Among public school parents, 72 percent claimed to know either a fair amount or a great deal about Common Core.

The PDK/Gallup poll also asked the public about attitudes towards school choice.

A solid 64 percent of all people surveyed and a nearly identical 63 percent of parents like charter schools.

Fairly similar numbers, 64 percent overall and 67 percent of parents, favor allowing parents to choose where in the community they send their child even for traditionally organized public school systems. Assignment by address is no longer in favor.

Furthermore, a solid 61 percent of the parents said they have enough information about the public schools in their local area to make a good choice about where to send their child to school. Only one parent in three said they would need more information, right now, before making such a decision.

There you have it. Even a poll run by the teacher-friendly Phi Delta Kappan now shows significant support for charter schools.

So, why is Kentucky one of the few states left in the nation without them?